The sky was grey with cloud that promised rain. Marjiana eyed it with distrust as she set off down the road. She had learned to prepare for the worst. The universe was rarely kind and beneficent and one had to fight for the scraps of happiness that could be found, lest someone else steal them away.
Her side ached as she walked. It was a dull pain, one that she had grown used to over the last weeks since her injury. There was nothing else to do but become accustomed to it, for there was nothing to be done about it. The community doctor had succumbed to the rhesus virus two seasons ago. Now they made do with what little those who were left knew.
The hetman had promised a new doctor would arrive with the next ship, but everyone knew it was just something he felt he had to say. Of all of them he had to remain optimistic. Why else was he the hetman, if not for that? To lead was to believe. The rest of them, including Marjiana, focused on surviving. They knew that there was little likelihood of another ship arriving anytime soon—the greater probability by far was that none would arrive in what remained of their lifetimes—let alone one carrying a doctor.
Marjiana walked past the other five homesteads nearest her own home, each of them on its own carefully delineated half acre of terraformed land. Danjesh saw her from the field where he was busy at work and stood to give her a quick wave, before returning to the painstaking work of drawing sustenance from the poor soil. No one else was about in the fields and the surrounding houses were dark and filled with shadows. Two of them were uninhabited, the families there having passed from the rhesus fever along with the doctor. The remaining two were not empty, but might as well have been, for their inhabitants had fallen into despair and now spent their days indoors awaiting their end. The hetman came once a week, trying to stir them from their melancholy, to no effect.
Marjiana had no time for melancholy, even if her spirit had tended that way. She had mouths to feed—six ,in fact, if one counted her husband Kjessel, which she supposed she had to. Presumably he could fend for himself, but Marjiana had her doubts, based on their first five years here following the terraforming. He was an engineer and used to problems having solutions, an inner logic, and there had been little of that here so far. There had been little of anything beyond mistakes and their ill consequences, which they all had lived with as best they could. Some better than others.
Danjesh called out to her when she was almost past their shared settlement. “How’s the boys Marjiana?”
She gave a shrug and a twist of her one hand, a gesture all the settlers used to indicate that all was well, more or less.
Danjesh nodded. “Mine as well. Might rain. Best take care with your walk.”
Marjiana nodded and continued on her way. Danjesh’s concern was warranted, for, after the terraforming, the rain could come in such endless torrents that rivers and lakes formed and could flood half the territory in a matter of minutes. With her bad hip she would have little hope of getting to high ground before the torrent consumed her. And she had told no one where she was going, which would make any search problematic.
Though she went for this walk every day, going to the same place, she never told anyone, not even Kjessel, where she was going. Many were curious, but they did not press her, understanding that this was for her alone. After years sharing cramped quarters on a vessel, no one could begrudge anyone a little taste of solitude in this vast and terrible expanse, no matter the attendant risks.
Not that pressing her would do them any good. It had been two years since she had last spoken a word, following the death of her seventh child and only daughter from the virus. That had been one sorrow too many to bear. Although that was not the reason for her silence. Not exactly. It was a complicated thing to explain.
Most of the settlers believed she had taken a vow of silence. There were even whispers that she had received a sign from God, though what god that could be no one could say. Such was not the case anyway. Marjiana had never been one to say much. Kjessel had done more than his share of the talking during their lives together. At some point talking had ceased to matter, the words too ethereal, having no meaning. Action, gesture, these were what mattered. Survival was the thing.
When there was something worth saying, Marjiana assumed she would say it. If that occasion never arrived, so be it. The universe—even this barren, unpopulated world—was too full of talk anyway.
Marjiana walked on past the final grouping of homesteads that formed their settlement, four in all. Only two of these contained inhabitants as well. The fields here were empty too, the houses quiet. As she walked past the final house where the widow Annys lived, the hetman ducked out of the house, a satisfied smile on his face. It disappeared as he saw Marjiana and met her gaze, replaced by a watchful unease. He did not know how to act around her, Marjiana knew. Many did not.
“Well met, Sister Marjiana,” the hetman said, unable to disguise his discomfort. “Well met. The family is well? I was just calling on Sister Annys to see that all is well.”
He was doing more than that, Marjiana knew, which was the source of a considerable amount of his discomfort. What the hetman did in contravention of his marriage vows was no concern of hers though. Annys was a sociable person, so it was unsurprising she had turned to someone for comfort, and it was even less suprising that it was the hetman. His proclivities were well known. None of which was her concern. She merely nodded her head and made to go on her way.
The hetman did not allow it, moving to block her path. “Do you think I don’t know what you are about? Speak damn you. We know you can.”
Marjiana did not reply, staring at the hetman without moving.
He glared at her. “Don’t try this game with me? It may work on these other rubes, but not me. I was chosen hetman. You have to answer me.”
Marjiana had to resist a smile. She did not have to answer to him or anyone and they both knew it.
“What is your damn problem?” The hetman said as she remained still, unwavering in her gaze. Suddenly he could not meet her eyes. He walked past her, back toward the center of the settlement.
“I’m watching you sister,” he said, though his voice sounded hollow.
Marjiana paid him no further mind, starting toward her destination. There were troubles enough in this world, she did not need to find others.
Soon she had left the settlement behind, the last of the homesteads no longer in sight. Before her lay the endless rolling hills of the hard plains where they had settled. The sky had cleared momentarily, allowing a bit of sun through, bringing sweat to her brow. She found herself smiling. It was only a couple of miles to walk and then she would arrive.
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Image: Clint Westgard